If Alphard Black had one skill he was proud of, it was his ability to keep his head down.
Minerva McGonagall, who he was reasonably sure only went to Hogsmeade with him in order to aggravate Walburga (not that he minded; he liked her company anyway), rolled her eyes at him when he mentioned this as a worthwhile skill, but Minerva had never lived in the same house as Walburga. With the exception of a single year, her first at Hogwarts, Alphard had spent all of his time in the company of his older sister. Being able to duck her, he felt, was a skill well worth having.
It had also taught him to duck other people, like the boy currently stalking around the dormitory, flaring his nostrils and grinding his teeth. Alphard always walked softly around Tom Riddle, but he'd made a point of being especially inconspicuous for the past two weeks. After he'd gone on about being certain he was a pure-blood left in a Muggle orphanage (he held this pitiable belief with great fanaticism), Walburga had publicly ridiculed him, daring him to find himself in Nature's Nobility, scoffing that he was no more than a Mudblood with pretensions, and Conjuring a small piece of tapestry that joined the names "No One Worth Knowing" and "Filthy Muggle Cypher," and drew a line down between them showing Tom's name and birth date. She dared him to prove anything else.
Blushing furiously, Tom had stalked out of the Common Room, but by the time Alphard had gone to the dormitory that night (hoping vainly that Tom would already be asleep), he seemed calm and reasonable, and even joked that Walburga must be a trial to live with. His own popularity hadn't suffered at all, and Walburga, quite frankly, came out of it looking like a ghoul. Alphard had been glad that it had ended so easily.
The next morning, their cousin Orion, a second-year student who had been Walburga's pet project since he first declared her "the most very prettiest girl in the world" at the age of five, had abruptly grown ringlets in the Great Hall, his robes transfigured into a Muggle dress, his shoes into some odd sort of thing with white heels and toes, and black middles. His socks were lacy and folded over at the ankle. Riddle, smirking wickedly, had flicked his wand and flipped the skirt up, and Orion had barely had time to grab it before the Black family jewels were on display to the entire student body. (Orion, mortified, had not told anyone, even Alphard's brother Cygnus --who shared his dormitory--what exactly had been under the skirt.) There was nothing to trace to Tom, as only Alphard had seen the motion of his wand, and Alphard had no intention of getting in the middle of one of Walburga's feuds.
Two days later, Tom's desk had exploded, destroying all of his notes for a Defense Against the Dark Arts essay, an elaborately planned potion he was trying to impress Slughorn with, and several Transfiguration homework questions assigned by Dumbledore. There was no problem tracing who'd done that--Walburga, madly, had set up the spell so that the family crest hovered over it once the dust settled.
Alphard had accepted no food from Tom, checked the food he did eat for potions, and kept his wand at the ready in case he saw Tom going for his own in a threatening way.
"I turned in my essay on time," Tom hissed, stopping suddenly, mid-pace. "Not up to standards, Merryweather said. Who's bloody standards? Mine. I wrote it all in two days after your sister spoiled the first one, and Merryweather marked me down for it."
Alphard made a few noises that he hoped Tom would interpret as supportive. When he wasn't fuming around the dormitory--and he saved that for "special" occasions--Tom was well liked by teachers and students alike (Walburga aside), and Alphard thought it better to be on his good side than his bad one.
"Detention!" Tom said, eyes wide. "Ha! Detention with Slughorn. He's probably using it to tell her grand tales of all of his favorite students."
In fact, she was cleaning the potions cupboard without magic and harvesting doxy venom, and she held Tom squarely responsible for this indignity ("House elf work," she called it), but Alphard doubted that this would ease Tom's temper an iota, as it was still being administered by a third party, making it look like he couldn't handle his own problems. So he said, "If you'd like, I'll carry a curse home. She wouldn't be expecting it."
Tom considered this carefully, then shook his head. "No." The worn look on his face suddenly vanished, and he gave Alphard a charming smile. "Don't mind me. Merryweather only marked down a point or two. I'm still top of the year. Dumbledore's questions were a joke, as usual, and Sluggy's just anxious to see my potion whenever it happens to get done. No harm done, really. I'll pay her back next year by showing that No One Worth Knowing and his Filthy Muggle Cypher managed to come up with a House prefect, and all of Nature's Nobility put together couldn't get her a badge."
Alphard returned the smile as well as he could, and resolved to check his luggage very, very carefully before he brought it into the house at holidays.
Tom went back to his pacing and tooth-grinding. Alphard remembered a book he'd left in the Common Room, and slipped out, hoping against hope that, if he took long enough, Tom would have settled somewhere by the time he came back. He wished, in a formless way, that his older cousin Lucretia, Orion's sister, had stayed on after her O.W.L.s; she was only six months older than Walburga, but it was enough to put her a year ahead in school, and sometimes Alphard had been able to prevail upon her to rein Walburga's excesses in. Now, she was too busy looking for a suitable pure-blood marriage to bother with such niceties. She had utterly rejected her father's notion that she wait and marry Alphard himself, not giving any particular reason for it, but Alphard didn't mind.
He settled himself on a low sofa near a book shelf, but had no sooner set to work on his Arithmancy homework than he was interrupted by a high-pitched giggle. Dru Rosier, a first-year girl, was standing at the door, holding her hair up in curled pigtails and snickering at someone on the other side. "Are you coming to our dormitory now, Orion?" she asked. "Has it all worn off? Or did you like our side of things?"
"Aw, let him be, Dru," someone said on the other side, and a moment later, Alphard's brother, Cygnus, appeared, followed closely by Orion. Cygnus was grinning. If there was a good argument against spending too much time with Walburga, Alphard thought, it was Cygnus, who followed her around and had become a right brat most of the time. "That was two weeks ago. He hasn't had so much as a dimply little smile since then, have you Orion?"
Orion gave him a twitchy smile. "Not a one."
"'Course, the rest of the lads in the dormitory are careful where we undress now," Cygnus added. "Just in case something stuck in Orion's brain."
Orion smiled tightly, and went on into the room. He stopped at the chair across from Alphard and sat down. "How are you?" he asked, rather formally. "It's been a long time since we've spoken."
Alphard raised his eyebrows at his twelve-year-old cousin. "Er... fine. And you?"
"I'm doing well, thank you." He looked over his shoulder, saw no one, and pulled his book bag around. He grabbed several amulets. "Here," he said. "You take two. Give one to Walburga. I've sneaked one into Cygnus's trunk."
Alphard took the amulets curiously. "What are they?"
"Protection. I made them in Charms. So that Riddle won't get us back over that bit with his desk. I... don't really like that game."
"Hmm," Alphard said.
Orion gave him an irritated frown. "Hmm, what? Everyone thinks I can't do anything, but I can."
"Well, I'm sure it's good work, but Tom Riddle is quite bright. I don't think a second year charm is going to work very long, if he's determined to get through it."
"Well, that's the beauty," Orion said. "The first thing it does is distract you, so you're not thinking about it. That's why I didn't want to give it to Walburga myself--it might not be strong enough if Tom's thinking, 'Hmm, I wonder what Orion just gave Walburga,' but if he doesn't know I've given her anything, then he has no reason to try to think past it." He bit his lip. "Perhaps you should sneak it into her things as well, so even she doesn't know she has it. I suppose you'd have to be a girl to do that, though. Maybe her school bag. I could do that myself... but I think you'd be less conspicuous..."
Orion wandered off, muttering to himself in this vein, and Alphard pocketed the amulets. He wasn't sure if he meant to give Walburga hers; it would do her a world of good to have her own pretty nose well and truly bloodied by Tom Riddle.
But habits died hard and Black loyalty won out in the end, if for no other reason than that Alphard suspected one bloody nose wouldn't be enough for Walburga... she'd start plotting revenge before she cleaned her face. So he slipped Orion's amulet into her book bag at breakfast, and tipped a Calming Draft into her pumpkin juice for good measure. Nothing happened that day, or the next, or during that week, or that month. Tom stopped grinding his teeth and pacing, and the dormitory became considerably more livable. In fact, Tom went out of his way to be friendly to Alphard, claiming to feel like a plain fool for complaining about a fellow's sister right to his face. They worked on Transfiguration homework together, and Alphard gave a silent sigh of relief--the storm had passed.